In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss regional realignment in the Sahel region of Africa. Subjects include the Nigerian coup, the new dictatorship belt stretching from Sudan to Guinea (Red Sea to the Atlantic) through Chad, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, Russian influence and historical legacies, the decline of Western influence and the emergence of the Wagner PMC as the new East India Trading Company with military, diplomatic and economic roles to play in the pro-Russian tilt currently underway in that geographic transition zone between Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa. There was much ground to cover so have a look/listen here.
It has been interesting to observe reactions to the release of a cluster of national security-related documents by the NZ government last week. They include threat assessments and forecasts, defense capabilities and priorities, and areas requiring upgrades and reform, and much more. Among the issues being considered is one that I have discussed here before, the question of whether NZ, if it is invited to participate, should join “Pillar 2” of the AUKUS agreement between the US, UK and Australia on submarine and related high technology transfers. NZ is not part of the submarine (Pillar 1) component, where the US and UK will begin to rotate nuclear attack submarines through HMAS Sterling outside of Perth in a few years, then help Australia acquire and eventually build nuclear-propelled attack submarines based on US and UK models now in service. Given its non-nuclear status, NZ is not party to that aspect of the agreement although it will eventually benefit from AUKUS submarine patrols off of its Eastern seaboard and EEZ as well as from the improved signals intelligence collection streams these platforms provide to the 5 Eyes intelligence network that NZ is part of through the GCSB electronic intelligence agency.
Pillar 2 is about establishing local high technology defense industry hubs in Australian locations and perhaps NZ. These would focus on developing indigenous and shared quantum computing, cyber security, artificial intelligence and an assortment of signals and technical intelligence capabilities relevant but not limited to submarine warfare and intelligence collection and which could have trickle-down benefits for commercial and other non-military enterprises. These technologies may not be available from other countries, as they a are part of high security collaboration between close military allies. The Australian federal government has already apportioned billions of dollars to several states so that they can engage in Pillar 2-related industrial development, promising to create thousands of jobs and spin-off business opportunities by doing so. Although I do not see why Australian business interests and local governments would want to share the employment and the short-term as well as trickle-down profit benefits of the Pillar 2 pie with non-nuclear NZ, NZ authorities and businesses have expressed an interest in being included in the non-nuclear aspects of the deal.
That is where the reaction in NZ has gotten interesting. Although the specific details of any participation in Pillar 2 have yet to be announced (in fact, everything so far has consisted of vague declarations of interest on the part of the NZ Defense, Intelligence and Security Minister, Andrew Little), there has been a strong pushback from certain sectors of the foreign policy community, including Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, former Prime Minister Helen Clark, and prominent academics such as Robert Patman. They all think that it is a bad idea, and while they offer a variety of reasons, their arguments against NZ participation in AUKUS Phase 2 appear to boil down to three beliefs: 1) trade dependence makes it dangerous to annoy the PRC because of the risk of economic retaliation (since AUKUS is clearly designed to counter Chinese military expansion and influence in the Southern Pacific and beyond); 2) there is moral equivalence between the PRC and US or the PRC is seen as a benign actor when compared to Western imperialists; 3) NZ must remain neutral when it comes to Great Power competition in order to remain “independent” in foreign affairs. All of these assumptions should be tested in any debate about NZ’s potential role in AUKUS Phase 2 (should it eventuate).
Until the specifics of any invitation for NZ to participate in Pillar 2 are outlined in detail, I remain agnostic on the proposition. I can see the benefits but also remain concerned that the nuclear propulsion component of Pillar 1 of the agreement is a violation of the 1997 Treat of Rarotonga that declares the South Pacific to be a nuclear free zone. Contrary to what some may think, the Treaty prohibits not only nuclear weapons but the presence of nuclear power and storage facilities on land as well. That means that AUKUS nuclear maintenance facilities, should they be constructed at HMAS Sterling, will likely be in violation of the Treaty. It appears that by basing the AUKUS subs on an island outside of Perth in Indian Ocean waters, the AUKUS signatories believe that they have circumvented that prohibition, but if one looks at the original maps that are attached to the Treaty declaration one will see that the coastal waters of Western Australia are in it. That means that practically speaking, AUKUS provides a precedent for the forward basing of other nuclear-powered naval vessels in the region, including from the PLAN (e.g. the PRC Navy, but others as well). That augers poorly for the Pacific remaining nuclear-free even if we acknowledge that nuclear submarines, including those that carry nuclear weapons, in all likelihood already transit Southern Pacific waters on a regular basis.
Although arguments by knowledgeable and reasonable people such as Patman are couched in neutral, objective language, there is also an internal political aspect to the discussion. Helen Clark was the PM when NZ signed the first Western bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the PRC, which many NZ trade advocates consider to be the “gold standard” of NZ FTA’s. Clark has a personal stake in that agreement, which was expanded by her successor John Key, so she certainly does not want to see her government’s crowning foreign policy achievement undermined by subsequent Labour governments with different perceptions on international security affairs and the role of the PRC within it. Remember that Clark was very much on the Left of the Labour Party before pragmatic centralism pushed her rightwards once she became PM. Remember also that she eliminated the air combat wing entirely when her government renegaded on the purchase of second-hand F-16s from Pakistan that would have replaced the obsolescent A-4 Skyhawk squadron. At first her government starved the NZDF of resources and delayed replacement of ageing equipment (although it accepted delivery of the completely oversized purchase of 105 LAV wheeled armoured vehicles signed by the previous National government, which then were largely kept in storage, deployed in small numbers and/or damaged in accidents and in operations until recent on-sales to Chile. There are still a few dozen left, most surplus to requirements). In fact, in the early days of her stint as PM, she downplayed the need for robust military forces because, in her infamous words, NZ existed in a “benign strategic environment.” That was before 9/11.
Then things changed. After 9/11 the Clark government saw the opportunity to ingratiate itself to the US (after the freeze in security relations occasioned by the 1984 non-nuclear declaration that ended ANZUS) by offering support for the so-called “War on Terror.” Along with disgraced former SIS Director Richard Wood (now still feeding at the public trough as Chair of the NZ Environmental Management Risk Management Authority (ERMA). He is also Chair of the NZ/France Friendship Fund, a nice sinecure for a former ambassador to Paris and Algiers), Clark was front and centre in orchestrating the malicious framing and railroading of Algerian asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui as an al-Qaeda linked terrorist. Although Zaoui was less dangerous to NZ that any number of Christchurch skinheads, he was imprisoned in a maximum security prison for several years until a team of dedicated advocacy lawyers proved his innocence, including that the SIS under Woods’s direction and at the Clark government’s behalf had lied and produced false evidence of his alleged crimes (the Vietnam “scouting” trip video being the most ludicrous of them). She also ordered the NZ intelligence community to focus its resources on the anti-jihadist crusade in Aotearoa and elsewhere (which may well have included NZSIS complicity in the US extraordinary rendition and black site operations against suspected al-Qaeda terrorists and supporters, the details of which remain suppressed), and to top things off attempted to use the newly-minted powers of the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA) to arrest and jail the so-called Urewera 18 band of leftists and Maori sovereignty activists (charges were dropped against all but four defendants, and the remaining were convicted of minor weapons charges after years of costly litigation, as had been the case with Zaoui).
Terrorism became the foil for Clark’s turn to security toughness even if the jihadist threat, both before and after 9/11, has been more talk than walk (no Muslim has been involved in an ideologically-motivated violent attack in NZ before or after 9/11. The 2021 supermarket stabber was, as I have written before, a lonely and homesick mentally ill person with a blade fetish and no effective counselling support, not an ideologically committed extremist). Sensing the tenor of the times, Clark dropped her progressivism on both domestic and foreign policy issues and turned rightwards out of political expediency (remember her opposition to cannabis legalisation while in office? She now supports it), thereby setting the stage for a change in NZ’s security perspective and assessment of threats.
At the same time she was polishing her anti-jihadist bonafides on the back of an innocent man and settling scores with pesky activists, she authorised NZDF deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq (even while not formally supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003). Not all of those deployed, shall we say, were NZDF engineers, and those deployments turned into a longer-term engagement in both countries that did not end until the end of the 2010s/early 2020s. In the end both countries reverted to form once the NZDF vacated the premises, leaving as a result 10 dead soldiers, several more wounded, credible accusations of war crimes and a cost of millions of dollars.
The turn towards revitalising ties with Western security partners began with her government. Under her watch NZ negotiated the core of the bilateral Wellington and Washington Agreements on US-NZ defense cooperation (later signed into force by her successors). NZ also deepened its ties within the 5 Eyes signals-technical intelligence network involving Anglophone partners. That makes it pretty rich of her to now claim that NZ has become too ensnared in the 5 Eyes “vice” and has adopted too much of a Western-centric security perspective. In fact, it appears that beyond her obvious hypocrisy, Clark has returned in retirement to her lefty roots in order to burnish her tarnished progressive credentials with certain domestic and foreign audiences. But that does not make her right when it comes to NZ’s national security and contradicts her actions on the security front while in office.
Beyond her personal foibles, the Clark interjections in current NZ security debates is evidence that she clearly is out of the loop when it comes to current NZ intelligence and defence threat assessments, but more importantly, is more proof of a significant fracture within Labour Party circles (the domestic aspects concerning tax policy and other issues having already become public). For example, Foreign Minister Mahuta has been demoted within Cabinet and appears increasingly confined to ceremonial roles rather than substantive engagement with foreign policy formulation. Minister Little has clearly assumed a dominant role in foreign policy decision-making as well as in security affairs, having repeatedly stated that NZ “no longer operates in a benign strategic environment” in a pointed message for Clark to pull her head in (and to be sure, the rightward drift in Labour after Jacinda Ardern’s tenure as PM is palpable this election year).
He, of course, is objectively correct on that score. NZ has to adapt its strategic posture to the times, and these times are not those extant during Clark’s tenure as PM. She and like-minded others need to stop living in the past, clinging to outdated notions of foreign policy “independence,” and treating the PRC as a benign global actor. As I have written before, NZ operates with bounded autonomy in our foreign affairs, something that gives it flexibility but which does not allow it complete freedom of choice or action when it comes to things like Great Power competition. But for NZ to be flexible in light of existing constraints, it must clear-eyed about what is and what is not in its medium to long-term interests. That is because in these fluid transitional times re-shaping the increasingly multipolar global order, trade opportunism is just a short-term solution, especially when it runs counter to longer-term international security trends.
If I were to be charitable, I would simply say that Clark and her fellow travellers need to understand that the PRC of 2008, when the FTA was negotiated, no longer exists. Gone is the relative openness and transparency of the CCP regime led by Hu Jintao and in its wake has risen the repressive and expansionist regime led by Xi Jinping. Clark and others may wax nostalgic for a past where the PRC would adopt liberal internationalist principles when it comes to foreign affairs and join the community of nations as a democratising Great Power, but that sadly has not happened. Instead, Xi has consolidated his grip on power, increased authoritarian powers against civil society, moved to culturally extinguish restive minorities like the Uyghurs, and de facto annexed Hong Kong while sabre-rattling against Taiwan and usurping the maritime territory of its littoral neighbours around the South China Sea. All while expanding its military capabilities (including its nuclear arsenal) and conducting global political influence (United Front) and espionage campaigns that include large-scale as well as focused cyber intrusions, intimidation of diaspora populations and industrial-size patent and copyright theft. That in turn has reconfigured the threat environment in which NZ is situated. The recently released package of NZ security documents pointedly make reference to these facts, among other things.
Even if we agree that rising Great Powers like the PRC have to do what they have to do when it comes to expanding their power, and recognising that Western countries have done similar things and worse well up to the recent past, it is nevertheless clear that the PRC is not operating as good international partner on all fronts, and that its behaviour is very much inimical to the rules-based order that NZ professes to uphold in the international system. In fact, the PRC under President Xi explicitly rejects the premise of liberal internationalism citing, perhaps at least partially correctly, that the international institutional status quo was built by and for Western imperial and neo-imperial powers and their allies, not for the Global South.
In that light AUKUS may not be the solution to the changes in the South Pacific strategic landscape and in fact it might make things worse if it serves as a precedent for the erosion of its non-nuclear status and catalyst for further militarisation of the region. But resorting to knee-jerk objections based on a rosy vision of some ethereal past does not help advance the debate about where should NZ situate itself in the equation and what moral, ethical, and practical utility AUKUS rests upon, especially since as far as the AUKUS partners are concerned, it is a fait accompli whether NZ is involved or not.
In that light, assessments and arguments based on nostalgia for a benign strategic past where issue-linkage could be abandoned and trade and security could be decoupled now seems naive at best and foolhardy at worst. But then again, I do not have skin in the game when it comes to past foreign policy decisions that have, in a path-dependent way, led us to where we are today.
Last week former President and Prime Minister, now Deputy Chair of the Russian Security Council Dimtry Medvedev warned that Russia would use nuclear weapons if its forces in Southeastern Ukraine were on the verge of defeat, using the argument that the region was Russian and the use of nuclear weapons was a justified act of self-defence. Meanwhile, in the coming few days we shall witness the 78th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the dawn of the nuclear (weapons) era. And coincidentally or not, in recent weeks the movie “Oppenheimer,” about the so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” was released to popular and critical acclaim. That got me to thinking about where the world stood today when it came to the potential use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The situation is not good.
As it turns out I have an indirect connection to the Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project that Oppenheimer directed and which led to the devastation of the two Japanese cities. Using that as a potential “hook,” I pitched the idea of doing a podcast on the subject of nuclear and other arms control efforts to my “A View from Afar” co-host Selwyn Manning. He asked that we also consider potential solution sets to the currently sad state of affairs when it comes to nuclear, chemical and biological arms control agreements, where the conventions that have been agreed upon are now either suspended, have lapsed or are being ignored. It seems that, as I have written about previously, in times of global systemic realignment, norms erosion and violation is a defining feature of the transitional moment. As things stand, solutions are hard to come by because although technical fixes are available, decisions about the use of WMDs are ultimately political. That was true for the Manhattan Project in 1945 and it is true today, and in today’s world the political will to renew and enforce arms control and non-proliferation agreements is not a universal value. It is a sobering realisation, one that drove Oppenheimer into anti-nuclear activism back then and one that we are confronted with now.
Your can catch the podcast here.
I do not usually write about NZ domestic politics, much less the personal dramas of those involved in them. But here I will make an exception because I am unhappy about recent events.
To be clear, the downward mental health spiral that ended Kiri Allan’s political career has produced some good commentary on the pressures in NZ politics and the toll that they take on politician’s mental health and family life. It was just a few years ago that Todd Muller had to step down from the National Party Leadership due to the stresses of the job, and to the credit of most he was allowed to do so in some measure of peace and dignity.
However, while there has been empathetic commentary about former minister Kiri Allan, the sad fact is that many in the National-Act coalition—particularly their two leaders– and a swathe of media acolytes have used the personal tragedy to attack Ms. Allan and the government that she served in what can only be seen as venal, nasty political opportunism coupled with media complicity. Like a pack of baying hyenas with a scent for blood, they have continued to hector the former minister in stand-ups and interviews, write irrelevant stories about people who lived in the area of an accident that was the last act in a prolonged process of psychological deterioration, talked with the owner of the parked vehicle that was involved in the accident (who was not present when it happened) and to cap it off, demanded and received permission from the Speaker of the House to engage in an emergency debate on Ms. Allan’s resignation and her mental “well-being” that quickly proved to be nothing more than an excuse to launch spurious attacks on the government. Shame on the Speaker for caving to the demands of the frothing Opposition mob, shame on the ACT Party Alfred E Newman look-alike who used someone’s personal tragedy for opportunistic political gain and shame on the unethical shills who pass as conservative media for cheerleading the whole thing and for continuing the ad hominem persecution well after Ms. Allan departed her portfolios.
Psychologically damaged by a dark combination of personal and professional pressures and therefore fragile in spite of her outwards appearance, Ms. Allan committed an act of political suicide last week. Like Mr. Muller, she should be allowed to find her peace.
Moreover, when one looks at the media treatment of this story and others involving Wahine Maori in politics, one cannot but suspect that there is some misogynistic racism behind the slant in the coverage to say nothing of the crude hypocrisy of not focusing balanced attention on the less than salubrious behaviours of some in the NACT coalition (who tend to be Pakeha and generally male). The “people living in glass houses throwing stones” adage would seem appropriate here, but the Opposition leadership and NZ corporate media seem keen to keep the focus on those being pelted rather than those doing the throwing.
Anyway, in the days after the news broke and seeing how it was covered and commented upon, I wrote a few Social Media posts reflecting on the affair. Here they are in annotated form.
“Voters may want to consider the responses of some Opposition politicians and Rightwing media figures to the personal tragedy of a Government Minister in order to assess their character and fitness for governing. Some might be found wanting (both as politicians and as commentators) if empathy and restraint are required.
Some have claimed that empathy caused the “mess.” Sorry, wrong. The former minister was a competent cabinet member and not an “empathy” hire (whatever that is, but presumably in reference to her Maori ethnicity). Political leadership is measured in various ways and seen on various dimensions, and empathy encompasses both.
Others claim that this is just an attempt to “deflect” from the former minister’s responsibility in causing a non-injury accident. There is no deflection. The drink driving/resisting arrest (which are more likely “failure to accompany”) charges will be handled by the courts under penalty of law. She will face justice and be held responsible for her actions. That is a personal matter, and should not be cause for politically opportunistic attacks. I should also note the the drink driving charge was on the lowest range of the scale so she will at worst receive a fine and possible disqualification from driving. Likewise, the resisting arrest/failure to accompany charge appears to be a case of lack of cooperation rather than physical resistance, so that too will unlikely result in a jail term. It is by no means a trivial matter, but in the scheme of things Ms. Allan’s alleged offending is not going to bring about Armageddon.
Still others claim that this shows Labour government incompetence because Ms. Allan was allowed to return to her job after a previous mental health breakdown. To which I responded: Please stay on topic. This is about a personal mental health problem that destroyed a political career, not about competence (which has never been disputed in this particular case). Other recent ministerial resignations are fair partisan game given the circumstances of their exit, but this one is not.”
It also must be understood that it is hard to ascertain when a person can return to work after a mental health crisis and what might trigger another one. That is at best a matter to be discussed between the person involved and their psychological counselors, not by medically unqualified political party leaders (who should reply on expert advice as well as personal assurances when making calls about reinstatement). Everything indicates that professional criteria, not political expediency, was the main determinant of Ms. Allan’s return to work.
Nearly a week after the accident, today’s news story is that police dogs were used to track Ms. Allan after the crash and she was found 500 meters away from the scene. So the dogs did their job and it is certainly not a good look to have left the scene. But what relevance does this have to politics? Why is it still a major news story? Ms. Allan was in crisis and made bad decisions on that night. The matter is now between Ms. Allan and the justice system, and the evidentiary how’s and why’s of the accident will be presented in court. So what is the point in salaciously belaboring and speculating about the circumstances? She has resigned and will not run for re-election in October, in a district where she is widely respected and admired. Politically speaking, the story has run its course so everything at this point is a partisan beat-up (and bullying).
Meanwhile, the human offal that passes for the National and ACT Party leaders continue to lie and dog-whistle using US-style politics of racial and class division as a wedge on the electorate while capitalizing on personal failures in the government ranks to score cheap political points rather than concentrate on delivering realistic and collectively beneficial policy alternatives oriented toward pursuing the common good. Truth be told, the NACTs have nothing other than the tired old “hard on crime, lower taxes, cut public spending and roll back regulations while privatizing public services” rubbish that has proven detrimental to the welfare of most people in contemporary market democracies. Vague and discredited trickle down economic policies do not work and are no substitute for creative approaches to the collective interest. Since the NACTs have nothing on that score, they just whine, lie and engage in personal attacks as per the Dirty Politics playbook.
Whatever the failures of the current government and some of its ministers, one thing appears certain at this point: having a NACT coalition in power will be a disaster for most of us even while it benefits a very distinct few and the corporate media uncritically applauds—some would say encourages–their self-serving nation-busting antics. Now is the time to open our eyes and see what choice is before us in October: the politics of cruelty, division and avarice, or the politics of moderation and continuity. If the choice turns out in favour of the latter, even as a “lesser evil” option, it offers a basis to repudiate nastiness, greed and sectarianism as well as foreign ideological influences in NZ. If the choice is for the former, it means that a majority chooses to embrace the darker side of our national psyche.
That will be a collective tragedy, not a personal one.
In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the concept of “democratic backsliding” and why it is a troublesome development world wide. To do so we disaggregate the political, institutional and societal manifestations of backsliding in a democracy as well as the reasons for it. You can find the show here.
In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I decided to do a “near-far” sequence and look at the recent NZ trade mission to the PRC in broader context before turning our attention a discussion of what the Wagner Group incursion into Russia means in the short and medium terms. Short answer: Who knows? You can find the podcast here.
In the wake of the short-lived Wagner Group incursion into Russia I decided to tweet some basic definitions of various irregular collective action taken against political regimes and ruling elites. That was in due in no small measure to my frustration with mindless media in NZ and elsewhere originally labelling the event as a “coup” (as in coup d’état) before settling on “mutiny” after the fact. I figured that I would flesh out the tweets and publish them here.
A coup d’état (French, a strike against the State) or “golpe” (Spanish, golpe de Estado or blow to or against the State) is an armed intervention by the military and other elites against a civilian regime. A putsch (German, a violent attempt to overthrow) is a failed armed intervention by the military and civilian factions in order to produce a coup (I am indebted to Ian Morrison for correcting my initial characterisation). A mutiny is an armed protest by elements in the military against other units and/or their superiors.It does not involve civilians and tends to focus on internal, institutional grievances. A Rebellion/Revolt is an armed uprising by sectors of society against political elites, sometimes with military support. The difference between the two terms is due to the size and scale of the armed collective action–rebellions are larger than revolts and span a broader set of grievances. An insurrection is an armed uprising by elements of civil society against the ruling regime, sometimes with military support. A revolution is a grassroots act of mass collective violence against a regime followed by parametric (political, economic and social) change of that regime and in society. A pronunciamento Spanish, a pronouncement or declaration) is an armed ultimatum or statement of intent and claim by elements of the military, paramilitary militias or armed elements of civil society. It is designed to convey a message and a seriousness of purpose to targeted elites regarding their handling of certain grievances held by those making the pronouncement. It is not designed to provoke regime change per se but instead seeks to force an outcome favourable to those making the demands (my thanks to Adam Przeworski for bringing this to my attention).
Note that under certain conditions one type of event can lead to another in a cascade effect, e.g. a pronouncement leading to a rebellion leading to an insurrection that results in revolution. We also must distinguish between armed inter-elite quarrels (coups, putsches, some pronouncements), mutinies and civil society uprisings.
As for the Wagner foray into Southwestern Russia and the outer Moscow region, my impression is that it was a testing of the waters taken in order to gauge what support Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has within the Russian military and public. Remember that Prigozhin did not target Putin himself, just his High Command. In fact, for a year now Prigozhin has used his media platforms to call for the removal of Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. He has labeled them cowardly and corrupt, noted that their children live the lives of pampered princelings and princesses in places like Dubai, and holds them responsible for command failures and the needless deaths of thousands of ordinary Russian soldiers. He has even called for their execution. But he has said nothing about Putin, who grew up in his hometown of Saint Petersburg.
In my opinion, Prigozhin wants to lead the MoD, not remove Putin. In fact, allowing Putin to remain as president might make it easier for Prigozhin to exercise real power from the Ministry of Defense as well as direct the prosecution of the war. We also must remember that there are other private military corporation (PMCs) operating in Russia, the largest being the one controlled by GASPROM, the state oil and gas monopoly. Prigozhin is well aware of their capabilities and presumably would like to consolidate them under an umbrella organization with global reach. Wagner fits that bill.
Having seen the lukewarm military/public response to his pronouncement, he decided that now was not the time to storm Moscow. Instead, he cut a deal with Putin that allowed he and his men to re-locate to Belarus and eventually elsewhere (since Wagner has a significant presence in many places a bit more hospitable than Belarus and where he would be less vulnerable to Russian retaliation). Even if he did not enter Moscow Prigozhin damaged Putin’s strongman image and may have fatally weakened Shoigu and Gerasimov’s positions. After all, Russian oligarchs and attendant economic elites may now see a reason to hedge their bets when it comes to the possibility of victory in the Ukraine and the durability in power of Putin and his coterie.That means exploring post-Putin options (which to be fair are as of yet invisible and which are likely to be just as authoritarian as the current ruling crowd). The Russian public is also more aware of elite fractures within the regime, so this move may be just the first salvo in a more prolonged power struggle within Russia. In fact, Prigoshin has made comparisons between the current situation in Russia and the 1917 Bolshevic Revolution, so even if he is not conceptually clear on what the purpose of his move was (other than the preposterous “march for justice” he claimed it was), he clearly sees Russia in a pre-revolutionary light.
Anglophone media bobbleheads and opinionators went to their stock analogies of poisoned teas and open high rise windows to characterise Prigoshin’s future. I disagree with them because Prigozhin has an insurance policy. Prigozhin’s insurance policy is, most immediately, that Putin needs Wagner if he is going to get any positive military result in Ukraine. If he kills Prigozhin, Wagner will quit the fight or suffer big defections and Russia will lose in Ukraine. That would likely spell the end of Putin. More broadly in terms of insurance against retaliation, Wagner also serves as a foreign ambassador and liaison between the Russian government and a number of state and non-state entities in the rougher parts of the world. It makes billions of dollars by offering protection to Chinese and other diamond and gold mining investors in Africa (a percentage of which goes to Russian state coffers), and provides military advice and personal protection to a rogues gallery of despots in Africa and the Middle East. It is a de facto (grey area) arm of the Russian state in many places where official relations are lacking or where the Russians believe that there is a need for them to be hidden from public view. Heck, Wagner are even rumoured to have some sort of operation in the Chatham Islands!
The Wagner Group may be known for its use of conscripts and brutality but in true mercenary fashion it has a senior cadre of hardened, smart and cunning military strategists drawn from around the world, including several Western countries. They are paid well and their families are well looked after. They are loyal to Prigozhin, so if he goes (one way or the other) then they go, And because Wagner operates in many different places, has its hands in many pies and delves into a broad array of endeavours (including signals intelligence, psychological operations and cyber crime), it has leverage on Putin. That is why Putin must allow Prigozhin to live, as least for the moment or until the war with Ukraine comes to an end. He needs Wagner in the fight (which makes Prigozhin’s current decision to withdraw his troops from Ukraine an additional pressure point on Putin and his military command).
In any event what Prigozhin did with his advance on Moscow was not a coup, or a putsch, or even a mutiny (since his troops are not part of the Russian military even while fighting alongside it). It might plausibly been called a revolt or a rebellion if it had garnered more popular support, but it did not reach the level of insurrection or revolution–at least not yet. So I am left with “pronouncement” as the best way of characterising the move because if nothing else, this pronouncement could well be a prelude of things to come.
In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about how to approach disinformation in the contemporary media landscape and Global South neutrality or support for Russia in the Ruso-Ukrainian war. The discussion takes a few turns.
I was fighting a head cold when I did this interview so was not as lucid as I would have liked to be, but credit to RNZ for giving me the airtime. It has to do with the placing of Russian disinformation talking points in stories on Radio New Zealand’s digital platform. Knowing about Russian disinformation campaigns in the US dating back to at least 2016 as well as similar campaigns in various European states since that time, and watching the spread of foreign sourced disinformation during the pandemic and afterwards here in NZ, I have been trying to call attention to the insidious nature of these types of psychological warfare. After all, if you can subversively undermine trust and confidence in liberal democratic governance from within, then there is no need to confront it from without. The Russians are not the only ones who play this game.
The good news is that Western intelligence agencies, including those in NZ, are belatedly focused on countering the phenomenon.
Last year the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Solomon Islands signed a bilateral security agreement that includes police training and port visits by Chinese security advisors and naval vessels. This includes training in “crowd control” and protection of Chinese investments in the Solomons and opens the door to the possibility of forward basing of Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) assets in the archipelago. Needless to say, Western governments, including the US, Australia and New Zealand, reacted negatively to the deal (whose terms have not been entirely released), as have some members of the Pacific Island Forum community.
This year, the Australia, the UK and the US formally signed the AUKUS nuclear submarine agreement whereby Australia would first acquire, then manufacture nuclear powered submarines based on US and British attack submarine designs. The PRC and several Pacific Island Forum (PIF) states reacted negatively to the agreement (which may violate the 1997 Treaty of Rarotonga establishing a South Pacific nuclear free zone), although other Western Pacific Rim nations were either muted or supportive in their responses.
Also this year the US and Papua New Guinea (PNG) signed a bilateral security agreement that will allow US forces to operate on and from PNG soil and which includes a significant economic development component as part of the package. More recently, Japan and New Zealand signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement that is focused on joint operations in the South Pacific, initially for humanitarian reasons (such as the recent disaster relief efforts after the volcanic eruption in Tonga, where Japan participated) but opening the possibility of future joint military training and exercises in kinetic operations, especially in the West and SW Pacific maritime security environment. This follows on an intelligence-sharing agreement between Japan and NZ signed last year that allows better Japanese access to the 5 Eyes signals and technical intelligence collection alliance involving the US, UK, Australia and Canada as well as NZ, and which may pave the way for eventual Japanese integration into the alliance. Since intelligence sharing is part of military synergies and interoperability between different armed forces, this sequence of bilateral agreements would seem to be a natural progression in the NZ-Japanese security relationship.
What does all of this have in common? it is part of what might be seen as balance of power gamesmanship between the PRC and various rival powers in the SW Pacific region. Balances of power are, as the name implies, about balancing the power of one or more states against that of other states. These balances involve military, economic and diplomatic power and/or influence projection. Some so-called balances of power are actually not balanced at all and involve the domination by one state of a given strategic arena. This was the case for the US in the greater Pacific basin from WW2 up until recently. Now, with the decline of the US as a unipolar international “hegemon” and the rise of an emerging multipolar world that includes the PRC as a Great Power contender, the Western reaches of the Pacific basin have become a zone of contestation in which US and Chinese influence and power projection compete.
Other balances of power may be between two or more states sometimes operating as partners against common rivals and sometimes operating as sub-sets of a larger arrangement. Most balance of power subsets involve regional subsets of global rivalries.For example, NATO and the Warsaw Pact were European regional balancing vehicles contained within the larger bi-polar balance of power between the US and USSR during the Cold War. The contemporary rivalry between the Sunni Arab oligarchies and the Persian theocratic regime in Iran is a Middle East example of a regional balance of power in which competition for influence and support for armed proxies is part of the balancing game.
In East and Southeast Asia, several states have joined US-led coalitions in order to balance out the increasing PRC military presence in that part of the world. The Philippines, Singapore, Malyasia, Vietnam and Thailand, to say nothing of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, all have bilateral military-security agreements with the US that are specifically designed to help counter Chinese power projection in Western Pacific Rim area of operations (AOR).
A way to think about this multi-tiered/multi-faceted geopolitical balancing is to envision as what economists call a “nested” game, i.e. a game or games played within a larger game or games. The largest game sets the broad contours of what happens within it, with smaller games or subsets focused on specific meso- or micro-aspects of the larger (macro) game and with each level of games reinforcing balancing plays on the others. A less academic way is to think of balance of power games as being akin to a Matryoshka Doll with the largest game holding within it a number of smaller subsets that give internal substance to the overall representation.
The action/reaction dynamic between the PRC and rival powers involves a) the attempt to ring-fence the PRC in terms of its power projection in order to limit its capability to influence, via the threat of coercion or otherwise, regional politics; and b) the attempts by the PRC to break out of the corralling project erected against it. Arguments aside about whether the breakout move or the ring-fencing project came first, that is now a fait accompli. The dynamic is out in the open in the South China Sea, where the PRC has abandoned its insular, land-based strategic perspective and announced its maritime presence with its island-building project in international waters and its increased deployments of armed vessels off the coasts of its littoral neighbours as well as out into the blue waters of the West and Southwestern Pacific.
In return, the US has shifted sixty percent of its naval assets to the Pacific (rather its traditional focus on the Atlantic), and moved significant contingents of long-range bombers and fighter aircraft to bases in Guam, Okinawa and in the near future Australia. It has bolstered troop numbers and rotations in places like the Philippines, South Korea and Australia and increased the tempo of joint exercises with a host of regional partners. Likewise, the French have increased the size of their Pacific army and naval fleets (headquartered in Noumea and Papeete, respectively), as well as the number of exercises with Australian and US forces in the SW Pacific. The ring-fencing versus breakout balancing project, in other words, is well underway.
For a podcast discussion based on this post, please head to “A View from Afar.”
This begs a larger question. Does the PRC have legitimate interests in the Pacific and as a Great Power should those interests be understood and respected? Think of the Belt and Road Initiative and other large Chinese investments in foreign infrastructure development and resource extraction and the great risks that they carry. Accordingly, the PRC has an interest in maintaining access to major sea lanes and potential resource opportunities in the Pacific region. The question is whether it wants to work in accordance with international norms and in concert with the international community on things like freedom of navigation and regulation of seabed mining or does it wish to control sea lanes and set its own rules when it comes to exploiting natural resources in the Western Pacific.
The issue seems to be not about the legitimacy of PRC interests but the way it behaves in pursuit of them. The South China Sea is an example: bullying of neighbors, violating international norms with its island-building projects, the illegitimate extension of sovereignty claims over the whole South China Sea basin, the attempt to claim and control key choke points in international waters like the Taiwan Straits. All of these moves would seem to set a bad precedent for PRC power projection aspirations further South and are therefore the basis for regional concern about its growing presence. Then there is the issue of governance and PRC checkbook/debt diplomacy reinforcing corruption in the PIF states.
All of this suggests that, contrary to expectations two decades ago, the PRC behaves like a bad global/regional “citizen.” It violates norms and the rules based order and ignores established codes of conduct regarding the pursuit of national interests when projecting power and influence abroad. It is militarily and diplomatically aggressive when asserting its claims abroad, and as the pandemic response demonstrates, it is less than transparent and truthful when dealing with the motivations for and consequences of its actions.
To be sure, it is equally true that the “rules-based international order” was made for and by Western Great Powers before and after WW2, and the PRC is correct in noting that when calling for a new global regime that is not dominated by Western interests. Western colonialism and neo-imperialism has much to answer for. But it should also be understood that the setting of international rules by Western powers was as much a form of self-limiting strategy o themselves as it was an imposed (Western dominated) status quo.
That is, the Western great powers agreed to set rules that limited their relative freedom of action in the international sphere as much as it consolidated their dominant positions within it. The reason for this was that by establishing mutually accepted self-limiting rules as codes of conduct in various arenas (say, trade), Western powers reduced the chances that competition could turn into conflict because mediation and arbitration clauses are part of the rules-based order. More than dominate the global South, they wanted to reduce the risk of unfettered competition on any front leading to conflict among them.
One of the assumptions that underpinned inviting the PRC into the WTO and World Bank was that the PRC would understand and accept the self-limiting strategy that was the conceptual basis of the rules-based order. It was assumed that by playing by the rules the PRC could be integrated peacefully as an emerging Great Power into the community of nations. The trouble is that those assumptions proved false and under Xi Jinping the PRC has embarked on a project of individual aggrandizement rather than multinational cooperation. In its military posturing and wolf warrior diplomacy, violation of things like intellectual property and patent rights, use of telecommunication technologies for espionage, violation of resource protection regulations etc., the PRC’s behaviour shows its contempt for the self-limiting premise of the rules-based order.
That could well be what alarms the West as much as any specific instance of Chinese aggression. If the rules-based order can be successfully ignored or challenged, then a turn to a Hobbesian state of nature or international state of anarchy becomes potential reality. Russia has already signalled its rejection of the rules-based order and is in a strategic alliance with the PRC that explicitly claims a need for the establishment of a new world order. Many in the global South, tired of Western imperialism, interventionism and rigging of the trade and diplomatic rules and mores of the current “liberal” internationalist system., have indicated support for a new global regime led by Russia and the PRC. Thus the concern in the West and allied nations is not about any specific action on the part of the PRC but about said actions being a trigger point that not only could lead to military conflict but to a collapse of the international consensus in support of the rules-based order (and of liberal internationalism in general).
The West-led ring-fencing coalition will argue that the matter is not about thwarting PRC ambitions but about getting it to accept the mutual self-limiting logic of the li, rules-based liberal international order. The Chinese will argue that the issue is precisely about thwarting PRC breakout ambitions to national greatness on the world stage.
In the end the argument will be made in Western security circles and amongst their allies that the regional balancing acts going on in the Western Pacific are due to the need for a defensive response to contemporary PRC military-diplomatic belligerency that, along with other authoritarian challenges, attempt to usurp the rules-based liberal international order. The PRC will counter that its breakout policies are designed to overcome years of Western-imposed containment pursuant to claiming its rightful place as a global Great Power leading a revamped multipolar international system. The arguments one way or the other are themselves evidence of geopolitical balancing at work, but the consequences should miscalculations occur or mistakes happen have the potential to make for much more than an imbalance in or rebalancing of relative power projection capabilities in the West and Southwest Pacific. At that point mutual self-limitation as a foreign policy consensus may become a thing of the past.